Cliff May

Missile defense advocates – I list myself among them -- counter that MAD is an idea whose time has come and gone. The regime that rules Iran appears to view nuclear weapons and missile development as its highest priority, worth the pain being inflicted by a growing catalogue of international sanctions. It proclaims that “a world without American …is attainable.” More than a few of Iran’s rulers hold the theological conviction that the return of the Mahdi, the savior, can be brought about only by an apocalypse. As scholar Bernard Lewis has aptly phrased it, for those share the views of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent. It is an inducement.”

As for the authoritarian regime that rules Russia, it is not America’s enemy but neither is it likely to become an ally anytime soon – no matter how hard the Obama administration tries to “re-set” relations. What’s more, the Kremlin has been actively assisting Iran.

Two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. should create a missile defense “umbrella” that would protect not only American citizens at home and American forces abroad but also America’s allies. But such a project is not in development. And some say, given the state of the economy, we can’t afford it now.

Three reasons I disagree: (1) If just one American city should be hit by just one missile, the cost – not merely in dollars – will be far greater than that any missile defense system being contemplated. And it would require only a single enemy missile to stage an Electromagnetic Pulse Attack which could cripple the United States for years. (2) Deploying a comprehensive missile defense system would dramatically alter the strategic environment. The rationale for building nuclear-armed ballistic missiles for offensive purposes disappears if it is clear the U.S. has both the will and a way to prevent those weapons from reaching their targets. At the moment, the incentives are reversed: Muammar Kaddafi gives up his nuclear weapons and NATO tries to kill him. The North Koreans refuse to give up their nuclear weapons and we leave them alone no matter what they do. (3) The cost need not be exorbitant. Our missile defense architecture is made up of various systems – some can be cut.

One example: MEADS, for Medium Extended Air Defense System, is a joint venture undertaken by the United States, Italy and Germany. It’s now a decade behind schedule and more than a billion dollars over budget with Americans on the hook to pick up at least half the total cost of $25 billion. The Pentagon recently concluded that MEADS “will not meet U.S. requirements or address the current and emerging threat without extensive and costly modifications.” The Germans and the Italians no longer see MEADS as good value either. Yet MEADS continues to receive funding.

Why? One argument is that the U.S. has contractually agreed to “termination costs.” But surely President Obama, Secretary Clinton and their crackerjack diplomats ought to be able to persuade the Germans and Italians to waive or at least reduce those. And even if they can’t manage that, continuing project spending would end up more costly. MEADS proponents also argue that we can “harvest” useful technology from the program whether or not a final product is developed. But by putting the funds to other uses – for example modernizing the PATRIOT which is used by 11 U.S. allies who pay 60 percent of the cost to sustain the system - -- we can reap new technology while also developing a renewed, improved and readily deployable system.

Count me, also, among those who strongly support developing a layer of missile defense in space. According to some estimates, the cost could be less than half what MEADS will run. We have the technological know-how: It would almost certainly be based on “brilliant pebbles,” space-based interceptors (SBI) the size of watermelons that would be fired into the orbital path of a long-range missile causing a collision that would destroy the missile.

The President’s advisors oppose space-based missile defense. They charge that deploying such a system would “militarize" space. I think they have it exactly backwards: Such a system would be like posting a “Weapons Prohibited” sign in space. It would prevent missiles from passing through space on their way to their intended victims. Isn’t that the definition of de-militarizing space?

Indeed, the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) recently conducted a study and concluded that these concerns — cost, the fear of violating international agreements, and creating space debris (another objection voiced by opponents) -- are without merit. The House of Representatives recently passed the National Defense Authorization bill and included a provision that requires the Missile Defense Agency to build on this study by analyzing the operational and technical aspects of developing and deploying SBI. The Senate would be wise to follow suit.

If we don’t utilize space to protect lives, do we really think that others – the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Chinese, the Russians – will not eventually develop the means to use space for their own less benevolent ends?

For national defense experts, this raises a long list of questions. For the rest of us, it raises just two: Should we use our scientific prowess to develop an effective missile shield to protect ourselves, our allies and our interests? Or should we leave ourselves voluntarily vulnerable, putting our faith in MAD? One more question: Is this really such a hard call?


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.